Published on Academy of American Poets (https://poets.org)


Meaning

If a life needn’t be useful to be meaningful,
Then maybe a life of sunbathing on a beach
Can be thought of as meaningful for at least a few,
The few, say, who view the sun as a god
And consider basking a form of worship.

As for those devoted to partnership with a surfboard
Or a pair of ice skates or a bag of golf clubs,
Though I can’t argue their lives are useful,
I’d be reluctant to claim they have no meaning
Even if no one observes their display of mastery.

No one is listening to the librarian
I can call to mind as she practices, after work,
In her flat on Hoover Street, the viola da gamba
In the one hour of day that for her is golden.
So what if she’ll never be good enough
To give a concert people will pay to hear?

When I need to think of her with an audience,
I can imagine the ghosts of composers dead for centuries,
Pleased to hear her doing her best with their music.

And isn’t it pleasing, as we walk at dusk to our cars
Parked on Hoover Street, after a meeting
On saving a shuttered hotel from the wrecking ball,
To catch the sound of someone filling a room
We won’t be visiting with a haunting solo?

And then the gifts we receive by imagining
How down at the beach today surfers made sure
The big waves we weren’t there to appreciate
Didn’t go begging for attention.
And think of the sunlight we failed to welcome,
How others stepped forward to take it in.

Credit


Copyright © 2013 by Carl Dennis. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on December 23, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

About this Poem


"I'm trying here to throw light on the concept of meaningful life by exploring different notions of making a contribution, pushing for an expanded view of the roles required to give a full performance to human possibilities. The poet wants to believe that despite appearances everyone in the poem has a part in the play."
—Carl Dennis

Author


Carl Dennis

Carl Dennis was born on September 17, 1939, in St. Louis, Missouri, and attended both Oberlin College and the University of Chicago before completing his bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota. He earned his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.

Dennis has published twelve books of poetry, including Night School (Penguin, 2018), Another Reason (Penguin, 2014); Callings (Penguin, 2010); Practical Gods (Penguin, 2001), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; and Meetings with Time (Penguin, 1992), among others. Dennis has also published a book of criticism, Poetry as Persuasion (University of Georgia Press, 2001).

Known for its casual, plainspoken narrative style that makes its home in the everyday life of the American middle class, Dennis’s poetry is a quiet, almost intimate, meditation on the world around him. In a review of Dennis’s poems in The Washington Post, poet Robert Pinsky wrote, “The musing mind or voice reaches its object not with a turbulent roar of rhetoric, but with the penetration of fine oil. The poems of Carl Dennis proceed to startling, sometimes even upsetting conclusions by that musing process of mind, alert and patient.”

Dennis has received several honors and distinctions, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He was the recipient of the 1989 Oscar Blumenthal Prize, the 1995 Bess Hokin Prize, the 1997 J. Howard and Barbara M. J. Wood Prize, and the 2000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

Dennis taught at the University of Buffalo from 1966 to 2001, after which time he served as the school’s artist in residence. He also taught in the MFA program in creative writing at Warren Wilson College.

He lives in Buffalo, New York.

Date Published: 2013-12-23

Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/meaning